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Tampa Bay Juniors get title game, fun

An undefeated run to the Junior Softball World Series final game makes them the girls of summer.

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002


CULBREATH HEIGHTS -- The Tampa Bay Juniors and their yelling and screaming entourage played on fields from Citrus Park to DeBary to Fort Myers to Kirkland, Wash. They won district titles, sectional titles, state titles, regional titles and, finally after five years of trying, made it to the World Series.

They dismantled their opponents, outscoring the first 12 teams they played 97-16, while not allowing two of them any hits and three more any runs. The 14-player travel team won 20 straight games between July 6 and Aug. 18.

There was little doubt the group of 13- and 14-year old girls meant business as they headed to Washington to take on a field filled with teams from Puerto Rico, the Philippines and the Netherlands.

They were on a mission: They were going to make friends.

Friends?

"The people in Washington were so nice," said Tari Owi, one of the team's top hitters during the six-week season. "The teams were from all over the world. We all became friends and we played some softball. What can be better than that?"

This particular Juniors team -- part of the Tampa Bay Little League All Stars -- was formed in 1997 as head coach Larry Rodriguez put together a team of 9- and 10-year olds.

The girls stayed together each summer, winning four state titles only to lose in the regional tournament each of the past two seasons to a team from Texas. Many of them will stay together even longer as they head to fortify Plant High's program during the next few years.

The goal this year was to clear that one hurdle and earn the trip to Kirkland, Wash., about 15 miles outside of Seattle. Some thought this might be the team's final year together and they felt a World Series appearance was the only fitting way to end that relationship.

"Quite honestly, that was the whole reason we played this year," said Mark Pilger, whose daughter Annie was a pitcher for the team. "This team has been together for five years. The goal was to just get to the World Series."

The Juniors did that -- and did it in style.

After beating everybody who lined up against them, the Juniors earned the trip to Kirkland. The only problem is they did it two days before they were supposed to head to Kirland. And they did it about three hours from home. At night.

"We had parents rushing around, making reservations Thursday night to fly to Seattle on Saturday," said Rodriguez, also head softball coach at Academy of the Holy Names.

"You can't plan that in advance because you don't know if you're going to win. We drove back Thursday night. All day Friday we were making reservations, packing all the equipment. We had a lot of things had to do."

Mark Pilger said parents immediately hit the Internet in search of airfare deals, only to be hit with $1,500-per-ticket prices at first glance. A little work finally got the prices down to a manageable $506 per ticket for Pilger, his wife and Annie, while some other families wound up paying less than $500 each.

All told, a group of about 100 family and fans made the trek west, many getting there just in time to see their team beat Puerto Rico's Rosario y Cardona Little League 11-1 in the opening game of the series. The next day was a well deserved off day.

Rodriguez told his players to sleep in as late as they could and many of the players used the free time to tour the Space Needle or take a ferry around Puget Sound. They got a peek at Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' 64,000 square foot home.

The team won its next four games, finally achieving that main goal: the World Series championship game. The season, not to mention the five years of practice and games, was a success.

"We really just wanted to make it to the championship game," Owi said. "That was the goal, especially after losing in the regional the last few years. We just wanted to get there."

It didn't matter that the Netherlands jumped out to an early lead. Nobody really cared when the innings started running out on the Tampa Bay Juniors 20-game unbeaten streak.

Sure, some got their hopes up when the Juniors loaded the bases in the seventh inning, trailing by two runs. But it didn't really matter that those runners never crossed the plate and they lost the game 5-3, finishing second in the world.

"It's been a great experience," Rodriguez said. "There's a lot of talent there. It was just a bad game. I told them those are going to happen. A lot were upset about the final game but that was their goal. They wanted the opportunity to play for a world championship."

-- Mike Readling can be reached at readling@sptimes.com or 226-3350.

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